[10 July 2012]
First, a caveat:Know that this reviewer counts Pony Express Record, the sublimely bizarre 1994 release by Craig Wedren’s old band Shudder to Think, among his favorite albums. Know also that fandom of the hall-of-mirrors arena rock on said masterpiece doesn’t translate for all admirers into unconditional love for the band’s whole catalog. Some fans consider the band’s evolution from melodic D.C. hardcore to Pony Express Record a completed journey, a move from one uncompromising aesthetic to a more complex, but no less compromising, one. To these fans, the band’s final album, the user-friendly 50,000 B.C., and its later chameleonic soundtrack work are unfortunate postscripts. To others, the post-Pony Express Record works are further stops on the trip that shifted the emphasis from the reconfiguring of rock tropes to an open-minded embrace of them. I’m a fan of the second type, and this perspective may be critical to truly appreciate Baby, the only album by Wedren’s post-Shudder group, originally released in 2004 and now remastered, reissued, and bonus track-equipped. Here, Wedren and his NYC-based band customize his emergent glam and power-pop impulses with heavy electronic flourishes and a sexy, silly, fun aesthetic.
You might not guess it from the solo albums Wedren put out after the original release of Baby — the obliquely confessional Lapland (2005), a collection of ‘90s experiments as The Spanish Amnesian (2009), and the hit-and-miss Wand (2011) — but “fun” has been the operative word for much of Wedren’s career of late. For the last decade, he’s spent a lot of his time doing soundtrack work, mostly for comedies and often for The State alum David Wain, whose Paul Rudd/Jennifer Aniston vehicle, Wanderlust, features Baby’s “Get Your Body”, prompting the album’s re-release.
The expansion and remastering are nice, but the re-release is welcome enough in itself, since it was so easy to miss this band the first time around. Despite being together from 2001 to 2004, Baby seldom played outside of New York City, and the album mostly flew under the radar even for fans of Wedren’s other work. Which may be just fine, because, as good as the songs may have sounded at the time, the years have been kind to them. Since 2004, artists from Ke$ha to ex-Fall Out Boy singer Patrick Stump have done their part to acclimate the charts to overdriven dance-pop/guitar rock hybrids of which Baby sometimes sounds like a prescient, loving deconstruction.
On “Giddyup”, treated vocal blasts and unexpected drum hits complicate the disco pulse, and Wedren supplies some crunchy guitar leftovers from his Shudder to Think days. “Free Los Angeles” is anthemic bubblegum that’s as much Cheap Trick as Kelly Clarkson, slightly pre-chewed with typically Wedren wordplay like “Your super Cali fragile kisses sex me out the doorstep” and a New York Dolls lyrical lift to ensure we don’t lose track of the band’s NYC cred in all this West Coast talk. Speaking of the Dolls, the playful vibe on Baby also gives Wedren an opportunity to play with glammy sexual ambiguity, trading verses with bandmate Amy Miles on “Soft Feminine Boys” and issuing half-whispered “are-you-serious?” come-ons like “Get your clothes, get your keys, get your body”.
Baby, in its original configuration, starts stronger than it finishes, the back end leaning heavily on shorter, less developed experiments. Yet it wraps up nicely on “Call Wait”, an unusually straight-ahead showcase for vocalist Alex E that rides a “Love is the Drug” riff to a chorus that sounds like old Shudder to Think associates The Dambuilders, and “Leaving Day Ditty”, a dreamy take on a much-revisited Shudder to Think classic.
As for the bonus material, there are eight previously unreleased songs, one song that popped up on Lapland in a very different arrangement, and four non-revelatory demos of tunes from the original release. The previously unreleased stuff ranges from mercifully discarded missteps like the aimless metallic disco of “Electric Blanket” and the go-nowhere instrumental “Dancehall” to perfectly good songs that probably wouldn’t flow all that well on the original release. Among the best are “Unreal”, an “American Girl” cousin that could fit alongside Wedren’s sunnier, consciously cheesy soundtrack contributions, and the Miles-sung “On”, a dead-on pastiche of early ‘80s pop balladry (think “Time After Time” and “Crazy for You”).
But, as mentioned above, the fact of this album’s re-release trumps the debatable added value of the bonus tracks and even the re-mastering. Baby is dance pop that’s slightly too disjointed to be entirely danceable and guitar rock too streamlined to win over the more pop-averse fans of Shudder to Think’s most extreme avant-punk. But, as with the not-Bowie tunes that Shudder to Think contributed to the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack, the not-AM-radio-pop-classics that the band devised for the First Love, Last Rites soundtrack, and, indeed, the respective not-prog and not-glammy power pop of Pony Express Record and 50,000 B.C., it’s the contradictions and how they play off of each other that make Baby work. In this case, this combination results in the most playful release of Wedren’s career.